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Florida Gators dig deep hole early, rally, but late 3 lifts Tennessee Vols

UF can’t overcome a 19-point deficit with nine minutes left, dropping into a fourth-place tie in the SEC.
Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden goes for a layup as Florida guard Tre Mann defends during their game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. [CALVIN MATTHEIS                |  AP]
Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden goes for a layup as Florida guard Tre Mann defends during their game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. [CALVIN MATTHEIS | AP]

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — John Fulkerson knew the shot clock was winding down and Tennessee needed something to halt a furious Florida comeback.

Fulkerson set his feet and let a 3-pointer fly from near the top of the key. The redshirt junior forward had only attempted one other 3 in his entire career, and it missed.

But his second attempt hit nothing but net and helped the Vols secure their biggest victory of the season.

Fulkerson scored 22, including his clutch 3 and a tip dunk down the stretch, as Tennessee held on to beat Florida 63-58 Saturday.

The loss dropped UF into a tie for fourth in the SEC with Mississippi State. The top four teams at the end of the regular season earn a double bye in the conference tournament.

The Volunteers (16-13, 8-8) led by 19 with nine minutes remaining but saw the Gators claw back behind Tre Mann and Kerry Blackshear.

Florida (18-11, 10-6) got as close as one point in the final three minutes, but Fulkerson’s 3 stemmed the rally.

“I was talking to (Florida’s) Kerry Blackshear down at the other end and I was like, ‘That was God right there,’ ” said Fulker­son. “He said ‘good shot,’ and I was like, ‘I really can’t take credit for it.’ ”

The Vols defeated Florida for the fourth straight time and have won five of the past six against the Gators.

Tennessee’s defense put the clamps on Florida in the first half, forcing turnovers, charges and a shot-clock violation.

The Vols closed the half on a 16-3 run, highlighted by back-to-back 3s from Jordan Bowden and Santiago Vescovi, to carry a 32-17 lead into halftime.

Florida had 11 turnovers, leading to 13 Tennessee points, and was 6 of 18 from the field and 1 for 7 from 3-point range through the first 20 minutes.

“I thought Tennessee was really disruptive and I thought they did a really good job with pressuring us, especially in the first half,” Gators coach Mike White said. “We played unsettled and somewhat rattled in the first 25 minutes of the game. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with that.”

Tennessee expanded its lead to 48-29 on a play that sent the crowd, which included former UT quarterback great Heath Shuler and basketball star Dale Ellis, into a tizzy.

Some good ball movement that started with a behind-the-head pass by Vescovi ended with a Fulkerson dunk with 11:44 remaining.

Mann and Blackshear sparked Florida’s comeback on offense while Scottie Lewis tightened the defense. The Gators embarked on a 25-7 run to cut Tennessee’s lead to 55-54 with under three minutes remaining.

But Fulkerson made his 3, then soared above the rim for a putback dunk to keep the Vols barely in front for the remainder.

After Fulkerson’s emphatic flush, the Tennessee fans began chanting “Fulky, Fulky, Fulky.”

“If someone asked me if I ever thought I would be playing in a Tennessee game and they would be chanting ‘Fulky,’ I would have never guessed it in my wildest dreams,” Fulkerson said. “It is like a dream come true.”

White wasn’t surprised by the Fulkerson’s production.

“I thought he had the best motor in the league,” White said. “I think he plays as hard as anyone in the SEC.”

Blackshear finished with 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Gators. Noah Locke had 15 points, and Mann scored all nine of his points in the second half.

Up next for Florida is a matchup at Georgia on Wednesday before finishing the regular season at home against Kentucky next Saturday.

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